EXCLUSIVE: Ben Sprecher raised and spent millions on a Broadway musical version of Rebecca that never opened. For his next act, he wants to recreate an Old World family restaurant, updated for the Instagram age.
Will investors pick up the tab?
The producer’s plan: Rumpelmayer’s Rockefeller Center. With roots in 19th-century Europe, the original New York Rumpelmayer’s anchored the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South from 1930 until the late 1990s. It was known for its Viennese confections, high tea, sweets and teddy bears on display and for sale.
A Rumpelmayer’s visit “will always be a memorable, Instagramable occasion,” according to an elaborately produced video Sprecher posted on his Linkedin page. The video cites a shortage of affordable but appealing midtown dining options for families — at a time when kids are dragging their parents to Broadway’s expanding roster of teen-centric musicals. The proposal envisions more outposts to come. By expanding beyond New York, “the opportunities for growth and financial reward are limitless.”
High rents and other expenses make the prospects of success in the restaurant business as elusive as producing on Broadway, where most shows lose their investors’ money. Sprecher’s pivot from one risky business to another follows his failure to complete the $12 million minimum capitalization for Rebecca the Musical. The 2012 flameout ranks as one of the most bizarre fiascos in recent Broadway history, involving phantom investors, a confidence man who duped Sprecher and his partner, and lawsuits against a disillusioned press agent who surreptitiously warned off a potential angel.
Both Sprecher and the press agent, Marc Thibodeau, declined to comment for this story.
Sprecher recently earned a diploma in restaurant management from the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, according to his Linkedin page. (A spokeswoman for the institute didn’t return emails.) Over a nearly five-decade career, he’s been a lighting designer for rock bands, general manager, producer on and off-Broadway, theater owner and manager.
The Rumpelmayer’s name dates back to Austrian confectioner Anton Rumpelmayer, who operated in Baden Baden and Southern France beginning in the late 19th century. A.J. Liebling, the legendary New Yorker magazine writer, reminisced about having ice cream sodas at Rumpelmayer’s in Paris as a discriminating six-year-old in 1911. Matt Dillon and Brooke Shields were photographed at a party at the New York outpost in 1980. Donald Trump briefly owned the eatery in the late ’80s, along with the rest of the St. Moritz.
The hotel changed owners frequently in the 1980s and ’90s and lost its cachet as more luxurious hotels sprouted up along Central Park South. It was shuttered in 1999 and reopened in 2002 as the Ritz-Carlton, sans Rumpelmayer’s. Sprecher’s video doesn’t say whether he has a Rockefeller Center lease.
Another potential complication: Sprecher’s application for the Rumpelmayer’s trademark was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June. The examiner noted that a Rumpelmayer’s trademark is already registered.
Michael H. Davis, a trademark expert and professor at Cleveland State University College of Law, said Sprecher could probably open the restaurant without the trademark and likely win a trademark infringement lawsuit, although he wouldn’t recommend it. The current trademark owner has held it for years without exploiting it in a business, and ‘use it or lose it’ generally applies in trademark law. In 2006, Davis himself briefly held the Rumpelmayer’s trademark and tried unsuccessfully to raise money to revive the brand.
A Rumpelmayer’s reboot “could work today, as long as it’s not too kitschy,” said consultant Gerard Renny of Pacific Street Hospitality. “There aren’t enough places like Serendipity” — the East Side dessert mecca near Bloomingdale’s — “that are an experience for kids.” Russell Bellanca, whose Alfredo’s of Rome was at Rockefeller Center until 2013, said a restaurateur with Broadway contacts could draw theatergoers to the storied area. Despite the seasonal lure of the Christmas tree and ice skating rink, Rockefeller Center tends to shut down early, he said. “You need to let people know you’re there.”
Editor: Alice Scovell